The sooner we ditch the ATAR, the better. Universities must stop tweaking and teasing the numbers which pretend to be cut-offs for entrance and schools must broaden the way in which they prepare students for adult life.
ATARs don't measure much. In fact, thousands of students all over Australia scored entrance to prestigious courses such as law and medicine without gaining outlandish ATARs.
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Universities ignore ATAR scores
Up to 99% of applicants for some NSW university degrees have been admitted despite failing to meet the minimum ATAR score advertised for the course. Eryk Bagshaw reports.
ATARs, the rank students get on completing their HSCs, are a weak predictor of university success. Study after study, at an international level and locally, report the same findings. ATARs bear little relationship to what students can achieve at university.
The ranks are terrific at measuring the past but useless at measuring the future.
Moral panic in the market place is fuelled by disappointing remarks from the NSW Education Minister Adrian Piccoli, who was reported in Fairfax Media on Wednesday as saying universities were putting their reputations at risk and that there was no excuse for admitting such large numbers of sub-standard students.
"I'm annoyed that universities are taking students with such low marks out of self respect for their own university," he said.
But Piccoli surely must have seen the vast body of research – from the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education to work published last year in the Australian Journal of Teacher Education, which says ATARs don't matter.
If he hasn't, his advisers need to be changed quickly.
A student's ATAR does not make a student substandard. And that's true even if the student with the low ATAR goes on to do a teaching degree.
It's the one ranking which truly gets everyone exercised. How can we unleash those with poor ATARs on our next generation of exam serfs?
Yet Associate Professor Vince Wright of the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne, whose work was published in the Australian Journal of Teaching Education last year, surveyed data from 600 teaching students, focusing on how they did in their final teaching placement.
There was nearly zero – nearly zero - relationship between student entry ATAR and how those same students did in their all-important teaching placements.
"It's a belief that what you achieved at high school determines you for the rest of your life," says Wright.
And what of doctors with no ATARs? Terrifying, no?
I went looking for medical students with low or no ATARs. I found Skye Kinder who grew up in Bendigo, scored 85 in her HSC; and ended up doing a medical science degree. She used a rural access scheme to get into that course; and again when she finally got into medicine. She's doing just as well as her peers despite the fact her ATAR is at least 10 full points lower than the others in her year. Or another medical student in a Group of Eight university. He didn't even complete his HSC and ended up doing a management degree online. He is now in his fourth year of medicine and travelling perfectly well. He is planning to specialise in general surgery.
These two medical students are the first in their families to have degrees. In the young man's case, neither of his parents finished school. That's progress.
I've taught many many students in combined law degrees at the University of Technology Sydney, who've openly discussed their ATARS, far distant from published marks; but excelling – excelling – in their studies. Sometimes even they are surprised by how well they are doing. They are Indigenous students or perhaps they were sick during their last year of high school; or maybe they went to a school where the top student scored 80 and they were that top student. Sometimes their mothers developed cancer during the HSC year; or sometimes schizophrenia.
These students need our support; not scrutiny and punishment.
Universities must stop pretending the tweaking of ATAR cutoffs tells us anything about the quality, resilience and application of the students in the courses.
I do not care whether the cutoffs for the courses in which I teach are plus or minus – the students remain the same, some brilliant and motivated, some unready for university life. And some of my very proudest moments as an educator are those with students who came in on access schemes and went on to shine in both university and adult life.
Professor Sally Kift, one of only two Australians to have won an Office of Learning and Teaching fellowship from the federal government to specifically study what helps a student stay at university, says ATARs tell us more about where students went to school and "the social and culture capital which 'cottonwoolled' them" at the point of their final school assessment.
"ATAR tells us more about social advantage than it does about anything else," she says.
Kift reports that in 2014, around half of those attending university for the first time did not even have an equivalent of an ATAR. If that tells us anything, it says we need another way of choosing.
Or maybe not. Allow everyone to come in first year; and with proper support, see who thrives. Kift has two students who completed a one-year diploma without ATARs and are now on their way to studying pharmacy.
There is an old trope in higher education: what's the best predictor of your ATAR? Your postcode.
But if we allow the ATAR system to rule – or panic when we see huge gaps - we will end up in an Australia where the only people who will have access to higher education already have privilege.
And the rest will be squeezed out.